The comedian Jon Stewart rescued a bull in April, which sets a high standard for virtuous intervention. It is one thing to nurse a sparrow with a broken wing or feed the neighbor’s cat when it appears, forlorn, at the back door, but a bull?
Stewart and his wife, Tracey, an author and animal rights advocate, retrieved the runaway Angus after it escaped en route to a Queens slaughterhouse and later was corralled by police. Next stop for the Stewarts’ guest — immediately dubbed Frank Lee in honor of a prisoner who once busted out of Alcatraz — was their New Jersey farm. Permanent residence will be a sanctuary in upstate Watkins Glen.
There is no need here to visit the deeply philosophical questions concerning ties between man, woman and beast. To say the least, feelings are conflicted.
While we may cheer the Stewarts’ kindness, we are apt to be doing so over a bacon double cheeseburger or while heading to the zoo in a sedan with leather seats. Displaying an “I Brake for Animals” bumper sticker is not necessarily proof that you haven’t, somewhere in the closet, somewhere in the drawer, a pair of pigskin gloves. Is my soul the rough equivalent of an antelope’s? An eminence of higher moral authority will have to say.
Accordingly, it is risky to claim moral superiority for tofu turkey at Thanksgiving or argue with confidence that the departed family Labradoodle awaits at heaven’s gate with an impatient gaze that says, “Where have you been?”
For older people, animals are important in more down-to-earth ways — the obedient, unplugged children we never had and precious pals in later years. Dogs, cats, birds, perhaps, even turtles and tropical fish, can make a difference.
An entry on the website agingcare.com says pets reduce stress, provide mental stimulation and even lower blood pressure. Also mentioned was this arresting idea from psychotherapist Jay Granat: “Dogs — and other pets — live very much in the here and now. They don’t worry about tomorrow. And tomorrow can be very scary for an older person.”
Rover’s blissful disinterest in long-range planning surely is an approach I will consider, if belatedly. Though we often say young folks believe themselves immortal, I had precisely the opposite notion growing up, and have been suffering ever since.
Perhaps it was those frequent family visits to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn or all the 1950s talk about polio, or diving under desks at P.S. 170 for fear of an A-bomb, but I had a robust sense of doom. Once, lying in bed as maybe a 10-year-old, I lulled myself to dreamland not by counting sheep but years I hoped to live. “Nine million, 400 billion, 86 trillion million zillion . . . ” and so on.
No wonder Lassie was my favorite film star. I needed a role model.
Dogs were not allowed in my family’s Bay Ridge apartment but, once married and living far away, I wasted no time. In the first week of marriage, my wife and I went to the local rescue shelter and found a little sheltie-shepherd mix looking us square in the eyes. We named him George after a favorite college professor and took him wherever we went, long trips and short, wrestled with him like a bear cub and bought him a sandwich when we stopped at the drive-in.
Kids came along — rapidly: four in five years — and George adjusted nicely unless, of course, an interloper reached for his Ken-L-Ration, in which case George would offer stern, but nonviolent, rebuke.
George was our pal for 13 years and then went downhill quickly, as they say, and was gone, sad, sad, sad. Not long after, the kids fished a beagle puppy out of a canal behind our rental house in Bayport. He had no collar, and no home.
“Can we keep him?”
“What about walks?”
“We will. Promise.”
“I bet — but, all right, bring him in.”
Fernando Valenzuela, the lovable Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher, was big news that year and our kids named the beagle Fernando — Fernie for short. Fernie saw them through high school and college, and then the kids were off on their own. Until he got sick one night and called it quits in an animal emergency room, Fernie was family.
I couldn’t go through dog ownership again — parting is not sweet sorrow — but am drawing new lessons from all those happy years. The psychologist is correct. Animals live in the here and now. Not a bad idea for the rest of us, too.